Earlier this week, the South Dakota legislature considered a bill that would expand the definition of “justifiable homicide” to protect people who attempt to prevent the death of an unborn fetus. The bill was moved out of the SD House Judiciary Committee on Monday and was expected to come up for a floor debate in the near future, until some aggressive coverage by Mother Jones Magazine caused some of the more sensible members of the legislature to table it until further notice.
State Representative Phil Jensen, who proposed the bill, argued that despite the public outcry, it didn’t have anything to do with abortion. Because abortion is a legal act, he claims this bill would not apply to people who kill abortion providers, but to people who defend themselves, their unborn fetuses, or someone else’s unborn fetus (more on that later) from a person committing an unlawful act against them.
I call bullshit.
I’m sorry. We’re supposed to be clever and intelligent bloggers here at PM, so let me rephrase that. Jensen’s pattern of behavior ““ first ignoring media inquiries about the bill then backtracking faster than you can say Planned Parenthood to the rescue ““ causes me to find those claims dubious at best. Beyond that, the amount of research and effort that goes into writing or amending a law is enormous. The language of the bill is purposefully vague, stating (underlined parts are the new proposed amendment):
Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child“¦ [and] Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master/mistress, or servant or the unborn child of any such enumerated person“¦
So, it’s ok to kill someone if they’re trying to kill you or your family (or servants, apparently). And it would be ok to kill someone if they were trying to harm a fetus in any way. What does “harm” even mean? I find it highly unlikely that the Judiciary Committee counsel for the bill didn’t consider this potentially serious “unintended” consequence. Which leaves me to believe that either it wasn’t unintended, or he considered it and didn’t care.
Even if the “harm” language wasn’t problematic enough on its own, with its vagueness and lack of immediacy, making it more readily able to apply to abortion providers, this issue is further complicated by the fact that the justifiable homicide defense extends to fetuses that reside in other people’s bodies. It would be one thing if the statute protected women who were trying to keep someone from harming a fetus they were carrying. In fact, I would wholeheartedly support that amendment, which could be used against abusive partners, parents, etc. But the extension of the defense to other people, even family (and again, servants still, apparently) is very troubling. What if a woman wanted an abortion but someone else was forcing her to have the baby? What then?
I am pleased that this bill got shut down (at least temporarily) so quickly. When even militant anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue are publicly decrying a bill for going too far, you know that something is wrong. But the fact that a bill like SD HB 1171 could even be considered for introduction in the first place says a lot about the safety of women’s reproductive rights in America today.